Pipeline, a wave that needs no introduction. One of the most famous waves on the planet, it’s crowded, heavy, and a wave by which all others are measured. From the most incredible rides of all time to some of the most horrific wipeouts you’ve ever seen, resulting in a litany of Pipeline surfing injuries. Pipeline serves it all each and every winter.
The wave is incredible, a beautiful, bright blue cavernous barrel, lefts and rights where you can score the wave of your life or cop the beating of your life in the same session. While it looks perfect in videos, you don’t see the reef, sitting only feet below the surface, the pack of angry, hard-charging locals jostling for position, and the unpredictable nature of the wave.
So while Pipeline can be perfect, it’s also deadly. Pipe has claimed more lives than any other wave on earth, but why is it so dangerous? Why is Pipeline talked about so much? And why has it served up so many injuries? A lot makes Pipe dangerous, so let’s jump in.
Understanding Pipeline: Why is it so Dangerous?
You often hear how Pipeline is the most dangerous wave on earth, but why? What makes it so dangerous? There are a few different contributing factors going beyond how the wave breaks.
Pipeline comprises three reefs—farthest out lies third reef, which only breaks when the swell is huge. So, if you hear it’s breaking third reef, you know it’s frickin massive! Second reef is the next reef that only breaks when the swell is solid. The second reef means the wave breaks as a rolling whitewater before doubling up and hitting first reef.
First reef is where the action starts, and the wave stands up abruptly and barrels down the reef. This is Pipeline’s shallowest and deadliest section, where the best barrels and worst wipeouts go down. First reef is also incredibly shallow, sitting only feet under the breaking lips. The reef is hard as concrete and is made up of caves, which is not uncommon for surfers to be stuffed into after a bad wipeout.
Because of the potential of riding the wave of your life and the attention of the surfing world fixated on Pipeline all winter, the attraction of coverage and making a name for yourself on the North Shore as a professional surfer is why Pipe is so crowded. Throw in the cloaks that dominate and regulate the Pipe lineup, and you have a recipe for aggression, fear, and a hectic crowd. On any given day, there can be between 50 and 100, if not more, people making up the pack at Pipe. The Pipe line-up runs in a hierarchy, with top locals and surfing legends taking their pick of the waves first, the top pros get the next best, and everyone else feeds off the scraps.
Because Hawaii sits in the middle of the Pacific, swells march un-interpreted from the North Pacific and slam straight into the reef at Pipe. It is why Hawaii has such good big waves, as solid swells hit Pipe directly. Conditions also change rapidly at Pipe, meaning sand (that sits adjacent to the Pipe reef) shifts and impacts how makeable the wave is. This can make Pipe even more deadly than usual by rendering the wave a closeout.
The shallow reef, aggressive line-up, and huge swells make Pipeline incredibly dangerous; combine that with fear and other factors such as wind, tide, swell direction, backwash, and sand. You have a recipe for danger—a recipe for Pipeline.
Pipeline Surf Injuries
Pipeline has served up more injuries and deaths than any other wave. Taking many lives over the years, most notably Tahitian charger Malik Joyeux in 2011, along with many other surfers, all well-versed in waves of consequence. Even the best Pipe surfers of all time have had their fair share of life-threatening injuries out there.
Jamie Obrien – JOB needs no introduction at Piepiline, but even for him, the waves he gets out there now have come at a price. Whether it be battling locals for waves his entire life or taking more wipeouts in a season than most of us rack up in a lifetime, Jamie had also broken both of his legs at Pipepine, and this all by the time he was 15.
JJF – John John, one of the best Pipe surfers ever, broke his back in 2012 at Pipeline with a fairly run-of-the-mill wave (by John John standards) but managed a full recovery and return to surfing Pipeline.
Andre Botha – The South African bodyboard legend almost lost his life at Pipe after being knocked unconscious–hitting his head on the reef, and being rescued by Jamie Obrien and North Shore lifeguards.
Owen Wright – Owen Wrights’ return to professional surfing was one of the best surfing comebacks ever. After sustaining a brain injury at Pipe, the Australian won his first CT event back at Snapper Rocks. Owen, a well-renowned charger and CT veteran, took off on a closeout double-up, didn’t make it, and suffered a severe brain injury.
Kala Grace – In the 2023 Da Hui Backdoor Shootout, Kala Grace, a North Shore legend and Pipe charger, sustained a horrific head injury after falling inside the barrel and taking a solid first reef closeout on his head during a heat. He was rescued and taken to hospital and is still recovering as I write this. Billy Kemper also injured himself within minutes of this incident.
Pipeline Surf Safety
Even for the most experienced and best Pipe surfers, there are several precautions surfers must take to be safe (or at least minimize the risk) at Pipeline. Many surfers now wear Gath helmets if they hit the reef with their heads. Even Pipe specialists will avoid Pipe days where it’s bigger than usual or the wind or swell isn’t right; it just makes things even more dangerous than they already are.
Undoubtedly, Pipeline is an incredibly dangerous wave, and you only need to look at the most notable and recent Pipeline injuries to understand this. In 2023 alone, two of the best Pipe surfers in the world sustained life-threatening injuries within minutes of each other. It’s a serious wave for serious surfers and one that takes a lifetime to master. Even for top Pipe specialists, Pipe remains a wave that you never truly master and one that should always be respected.
Dan Harmon is a content writer and full-time surf travel enthusiast. He travels the world full-time while creating surf content, traveling to the world’s best surf destinations, and hunting out some lesser-known corners. You can follow more of Dan’s travels over on his YouTube Channel, website, and Instagram.